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Dutch may have edge on even World Cup field.

By Jerry Langdon
Gannett News Service

(Thursday, June 4, 1998) -- Don't pay too much attention to World Cup tune-up results.

* Germany was held to a scoreless tie by Finland.
* England had a draw against visiting Saudi Arabia.
* Brazil was tied by a Spanish club.
* Italy lost 1-0 at Sweden.
* Argentina was beaten at Israel.

Folks, it means very little.

Coaches have made up their minds, probably weeks ago, on the starting lineup. Players at this stage are trying not to get injured. And those that are injured are being held out when they probably could play, so as not to damage their fitness when the real competition starts. And teams from a strategical point don't want to show too much to first-round opponents who are scouting them.

But some observations anyway:

* Brazil no longer can be classified as the favorite. There is no dominant team at this point. France '98 is wide-open. The four-time champions and USA '94 winner has problems all over the field.

Striker: Romario's absence leaves a void up front to pair with Ronaldo. Bebeto, the apparent first choice, is past his prime. Edmundo might do the trick, if he can keep his emotions in check. Definitely a problem for Brazil. Are normal midfielders Denilson or Rivaldo the answer?

Midfield:This has been the real reason for the team's mediocre play the past few weeks, including a convincing 1-0 loss to Argentina in Rio de Janeiro that was meaningful. The midfield has not been creating plays for Ronaldo, who like any striker no matter how brilliant needs service.

Defense: Carlos Alberto Parreira emphasized defending when he was coach in 1994, earning criticism from purists who thought Brazil wasn't attacking enough. Mario Zagallo vowed to change that when he took over. He has Brazil hasn't played 90 minutes of consistent defense for a long while.

A champion in France? Not likely.

* Who is the favorite?

Germany is a possibility. It is a difficult team to outwork, but could be affected more than practically anyone if officials decide to rigidly enforce FIFA-mandated rules calling for ejection on "endangering safety" tackles. 1998 champion? Maybe.

England might be a choice if Paul Gascoigne was fit and in the midfield, but he is not, having been cut from the squad. 1998 champion? No.

Italy is a possibility. However, it is erratic on defense, and there is no depth at midfield. This team also has problems scoring. A fit Alessandro Del Piero is absolutely needed at striker. 1998 champion? No.

France is capable but lacks offensive muscle. 1998 champion? No.

Argentina's stock has risen. It has explosive scoring potential at forward, and the midfield badly outplayed Brazil's in their match earlier this spring. Few would be surprised to see it in the final. 1998 champion? Maybe.

Spain has potential but needs a spark to bring it into true championship status. 1998 champion? No.

Norway is the darkhorse. It can beat anyone, but whether it can sustain a run through the entire field is debatable. 1998 champion? No.

Yugoslavia can rate with anyone in star attacking power from forward or midfield. If it can hold up defensively, this is a team that could go a long ways. 1998 champion? No.

The Netherlands are this writer's pick. The Dutch have enormous offensive firepower, and strong defense. The criticism is that they wilt and become disorganized under pressure. Maybe this is the year they don't.

Jerry Langdon is sports editor of Gannett News Service and can be e-mailed at jlangdon@gns.gannett.com.